Style in Business Writing

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Transcript Style in Business Writing

Style in Business Writing
The Most Common Problems
in Management Documents
Long sentences
Passive voice
Weak verbs
Superfluous words
Legal and financial terms
Numerous defined terms
The Most Common Problems
in Management Documents (cont’d)
• Abstract words
• Unnecessary details
• Unreadable design and layout
Use the Active Voice
with Strong Verbs
• The time you spend searching for a
good verb is time well spent. When a
verb carries more meaning, you can
dispense with many of the words used
to bolster weak verbs.
• Weak verbs keep frequent company
with two grammatical undesirables:
passive voice and nominalizations.
The Active and Passive Voice
• Active:
“Microsoft bought our
• Passive:
“Our company was bought by
• Obscure Passive:
“Our company was bought.”
What’s Wrong with
Passive Constructions?
• It generally adds length to a
sentence -- 25% to 33% on
• The agent or human actor is
often obscured or deleted.
• Responsibility for actions in the
sentence are obscure or missing
How Can You Recognize a
Passive Sentence?
Some form of the verb “to be.” (“The
stock was bought by an investor.”)
• Another verb in the past tense. (“The
stock was bought by an investor.”)
• A prepositional phrase beginning with
“by.” (“The stock was bought by an
How Can You Recognize
an Active Sentence?
Doers Before Verbs.
Before: The foregoing fee table is intended
to assist investors in understanding the costs
and expenses that a shareholder will bear
directly or indirectly.
• After: This fee table shows the costs and
expenses you would pay directly or indirectly if
you invested in our fund.
Active Voice Really is Better
Before: “The proxies solicited hereby may
be revoked, subject to the procedures
described herein, at any time up to and
including the date of the meeting.”
• After: “You may revoke your proxy and
reclaim your right to vote any time, up to and
including the day of the meeting.”
Does the sentence use any form of the
verbs to be, to have, or another weak
verb, with a noun that could be turned
into a strong verb?
• In the samples that follow, strong
verbs lie hidden in nominalizations,
nouns derived from a verb that usually
ends in -tion.
Before: “We made an application.”
After: “We applied . . .”
Before: “We made a determination.”
After: “We determined . . .”
Before: “We will make a
• After: “We will distribute . . .”
Why Use Personal Pronouns?
First, personal pronouns aid your
reader’s comprehension because they
make clear what applies to your reader
and what applies to you.
• Second, they allow you to “speak”
directly to your reader, creating an
appealing tone that will keep your
reader reading.
Why Use Personal Pronouns?
Third, they help you to avoid abstractions
and to use more concrete and everyday
• Fourth, they keep your sentences short.
• Fifth, first- and second-person pronouns
aren’t gender specific, allowing you to avoid
the “he and she” dilemma. The pronouns to
use are first person plural (we, us our) and
second singular (you, yours).
Write Much Less Abstractly
A Carnegie-Mellon study discovered
that readers faced with complex written
information frequently resorted to
creating “scenarios” in an effort to
understand the text. They often made
an abstract concept understandable by
using it in a hypothetical situation in
which people performed actions.
Consider Levels of Abstraction
Carefully as You Write
Common Stock
Write Less Abstractly
• Before: “Sandyhill Basic Value
Fund (the “Fund”) seeks capital
appreciation and, secondarily,
income by investing in securities,
primarily equities, that
management of the Fund believes
are undervalued and, therefore,
represent basic investment value.
Write Less Abstractly
After: “At the Sandyhill Basic Value
Fund, we will strive to increase the
value of your shares (capital
appreciation) and, to a lesser extent, to
provide income (dividends). We will
invest primarily in undervalued stocks,
meaning those selling for low prices
given the financial strength of the
Write Less Abstractly
Before: No consideration or surrender of
Beco Stock will be required of shareholders of
Beco in return for the shares of Unis Common
Stock issued pursuant to the Distribution.
• After: You will not have to pay for or turn in
your shares of Beco stock to receive your
shares of Unis common stock from the spinoff.
Omit Superfluous Words
in accordance with
in the event that
subsequent to
prior to
despite the fact
• because of the fact
• in light of
• owing to the fact
by, with
because, since
because, since
because, since
Omit Superfluous Words
• Before: “The following summary
is intended only to highlight
certain information contained
elsewhere in this prospectus.”
• After: “This summary highlights
some information from this
Omit Superfluous Words
Before: Machine Industries and
Great Tools, Inc... are each subject to
the information requirements of the
Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as
amended (the “Exchange Act”) and in
accordance therewith file reports prosy
statement and other information with
the Securities and Exchange
Commission (the “Commission”)
Omit Superfluous Words
• After: We file annual and special
reports, proxy statement, and
other information with the
Securities and Exchange
Commission (SEC).
Write “Positively”
Positive sentences are shorter and
easier to understand than their negative
• Before: “Persons other than the
primary beneficiary may not receive
these dividends.”
• After: “Only the primary beneficiary
may receive these dividends.”
Write “Positively”
not able
not accept
not certain
not unlike
does not have
not many
not often
not the same
not . . . unless
similar, alike
excludes, omits
Use Short Sentences
Before: “The following description
encompasses all the material terms and
provisions of the Notes offered hereby and
supplements, and to the extent inconsistent
therewith replaces, the description of the
general terms and provisions of the Debt
Securities (as defined in the accompanying
Prospectus) set forth under the heading. . .”
Use Short Sentences
• . . . “Description of Debt
Securities” in the Prospectus, to
which description reference is
hereby made. The following
description will apply to each Note
unless otherwise specified in the
applicable Pricing Supplement.”
Use Short Sentences
After: “We provide information to you about
our Notes in three separate documents that
progressively provide more detail: the
Prospectus, the Prospectus Supplement, and
the Pricing Supplement. Since the terms of
specific notes may differ from the general
information we have provided, in all cases rely
on the information in the Pricing. . .”
Use Short Sentences
• . . . Supplement over different
information in the Prospectus and
the Prospectus Supplement. And,
rely on this Prospectus Supplement
over any different information in
the Prospectus.
Here’s Another Option
We provide information to you about our
Notes in three separate documents:
• Prospectus: general information that may
or may not apply to each note.
• Prospectus Supplement: more specific
than the Prospectus, and to the extent
information differs from the Prospectus, rely
on the information in this document, and. . .
Another Option
• Pricing Supplement: provides
final details about a specific note,
including its price. If information
differs from the Prospectus or
Prospectus Supplement, rely on
the newer or more current
information in this document.
Replace Jargon and Legalese
with Short, Common Words
• Ruthlessly eliminate jargon and
legalese. Instead, use short
common words to get your points
across. In those instances where
there is no plain English
alternative, explain what the term
means when you first use it.
Replace Jargon and Legalese with
Short, Common Words (cont’d)
If you’ve been around your
industry for awhile, it may be hard
to spot jargon and legalese in your
writing. Ask someone from
outside the industry to read your
Choose the Simpler Synonym
• Surround complex ideas with
short, common words. For
example, use end instead of
terminate; explain rather than
elucidate, and use instead of
utilize. As a rule of thumb, when a
shorter, simpler synonym exists,
use it.
Keep subject, verb, and object
as close together as possible
The natural word order of English speakers is
• Before: “Holders of the Class A and Class
B-1 certificates will be entitled to receive on
each Payment Date, to the extent monies are
available therefor (but not more than the
Class A Certificate Balance or Class B-1
Certificate Balance outstanding), a
Keep subject, verb, and object as close
together as possible
• After: “Class A and Class B-1
certificate holders will receive a
distribution on each payment date
if there is cash available on those
dates for their class.”
Keep Your Sentence Structure
Parallelism means ensuring a list or series of
items is presented using parallel parts of
speech: nouns, verbs, or adverbs.
• Before: “We invest the Fund’s assets in
short-term money market securities to provide
you with liquidity, protection of your
investment, and high current income.”
Keep Your Sentence Structure
That sentence was unparallel because
the series is made up of two nouns and
an adjective before the third noun.
• After: “We invest in short-term
money market securities to provide you
with liquidity, to protect your
investment, and to generate high
current income.”